Celebrating Mary Wickes

Lucy's longtime pal, Mary Wickes, celebrated her birthday on June 13.

The following article was published in our We Love Lucy newsletter after her death in 1995.

Mary Wickes: A Treasure in Greasepaint

Mary Wickes, Lucy's longtime personal friend and frequent co-star, passed away October 22, 1995, following surgery at Los Angeles' UCLA Medical Center. She was 85.

Mary's death both saddened and shocked her friends and associates, for she had been active and in relatively good health until a few days earlier. According to Madelyn Davis, who had been friends with the actress for many years, Mary had entered the hospital with respiratory problems. During her stay, she fell and broke her hip, prompting the surgery.

Wickes, a verteran of 50 feature films, 27 major Broadway productions, and 10 television series, was still "gainfully employed" at the time of her death: she had just completed taping the voice of a gargoyle for Disney's animated "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." As a matter of fact, her death had come so swiftly and unexpectedly, a day after he passing a Disney producer discovered he needed a few more lines of dialogue recorded -- and, not having heard the news -- called her home to ask her to report back to work.

Lucie Arnaz, upon hearing of Mary's death, quickly rearranged her schedule and flew to California to participate in the funeral service held at All Saints' Parish of the Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. In a touching remembrance, Lucie recalled the many hours Mary had spent in the Arnaz/Morton home -- many of them on Sundays after church. "For my brother and me," Lucie recalled, "Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady!" As a final tribute to the actress, Lucie asked the congregation to give Mary on last "standing ovation."

The chapel that afternoon was filled with familiar Hollywood faces, friends, co-workers and fans who had come to pay their final respects. As Lucy's secretary, Wanda Clark, later commented, "Standing room only and great reviews -- Mary would have been proud!"

Standing room only and great reviews, of course, were nothing new to Wickes, whose career spanned some 67 years. "She has been called the last of the great character actresses," said Madelyn Davis, "and that was right. When Mary came on, you knew you were in for a lot of laughs."

Younger audiences knew her through her work with Whoopi Goldberg in the "Sister Act" movies -- and with Tom Bosley on the Father Dowling Mysteries TV series. Lucy fans, of course, remember her as the bombastic Madame LeMonde dance instructor, who attempted to teach Lucy Ricardo the fundamentals of ballet. She subsequently appeared as Frances, one of the ladies of the Danfield Women's Volunteer Fire Department (see photo, below) -- and later as Lucy's visiting aunt on The Lucy Show.

Lucy, Vivian Vance, Mary, Mary Jane Croft, Hazel Pierce,
and Carole Cook in an episode of The Lucy Show.

Hardly a season went by when Mary did not make at least one guest appearance on Here's Lucy in one role or another. A favorite part -- one characteristic of Mary's entire career -- was that of Nurse Ogilvie, who tended Lucy Carter's broken leg. Mary spent so much time playing housekeepers and nurses that she once quipped, "I've become Queen of the Wheelchairs."

Indeed, it was just such a part that brought her first acclaim: her breakthrough role was that of Miss Preen, the harassed nurse pushing Monty Wooley's wheelchair in the 1939 Broadway hit, "The Man Who Came to Dinner." She made her movie debut in the 1942 movie version of the George Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy (photo, right).

Born Mary Isabelle Wickenhauser in St. Louis, MO, Wickes received her undergraduate degree from Washington University and later earned a Master's at UCLA.

Graduating from Washington at age 18, she landed a small part in a St. Louis Little Theatre production of "The Solid South," in which she was spotted by Broadway director F. Cole Strickland. He whisked her off to the Berkshire Playhouse and then to Broadway where she made her debute in 1935 in Kaufman's "Stage Door."

For several decades Mary traveled between coasts, starring frequently on Broadway and in Hollywood. Films like "June Bride" (with Bette Davis), "On Moonlight Bay" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" (Doris Day) and "The Actress" (Jean Simmons) made her an audience favorite. On radio she played Irma Baker in the Lorenzo Jones serial, and when TV came along, she tackled that, too. In 1940 she originated the role of "Mary Poppins" in a live-from-New York production for CBS' Westinghouse Studio One.

"Every live TV show has the same excitement of a Broadway show," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1951. "This keys up performers and makes then spark."

Mary sparked and sparkled her way through one television assignment after another. She became a regular on Bonino, a live comedy series starring Ezio Pinza. (Again, she played the housekeeper!)

In 1954, she joined Danny Thomas' Make Room for Daddy (filmed by Desilu), playing Danny's press agent. She also played Alice, the maid, in Ronald Coleman's series, Halls of Ivy, and subsequently was featured on such series as The Peter Lind Hayes Show; Mickey Mouse Club's Annette Serial; Dennis the Menace; Mrs. G Goes to College; Temple Houston; Julia and vocally, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. In 1974 she starred in a pilot for Ma and Pa, based on the Broadway show, "Twigs," and, when that failed to sell, she donned her nurse's uniform again, this time for a season as Bernard Hughes' right hand in Doc.

In 1980, she played a critically-acclaimed Aunt Eller in the Broadway revival of "Oklahoma!" and, in 1989, made critics sit up and take notice again as the eccentric grandmother in the Shirley MacLaine/Meryl Streep movie, "Postcards from the Edge." Work in the "Sister Act" comedies collowed.

Herself an Anglican, Mary frequently played Catholic nuns, not only in the Goldberg films but in such earlier comedies as "The Trouble with Angels" and "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows," with Rosalind Russell.

"It's amazing," she once commented. "When you are in the habit you get quieter as far as your gestures are concerned. You find yourself quite relaxed and reposed, which is new for me."

Mary also took her nursing roles seriously, working frequently as a volunteer nurse and board member of several medical institutions. She also taught comedy acting seminars at Washington University, the College of William and Mary, and the American Conservatory Theater.

Of her many co-stars, Lucille Ball was the one with which Mary maintained the closest relationship. She also thought favorably on the likes of Bette Davis, Bing Crosby (which whom she appeared in "White Christmas"), Doris Day, and Whoopi Goldberg.

One of Mary's earliest roles was that of the nurse in Davis' famed "Now Voyager" film. In her first scene (photo, right), Wickes introduces herself to the returning Charlotte Vale (Davis), "My name's Pickford -- Dora, not Mary." Davis' response, a prophetic statement if ever there was one -- "I suspect you're a treasure."

And, indeed, she was.

Original material © 2005 Lucyfan Enterprises.
I Love Lucy is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
Images of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used by permission of Desilu, too, LLC.
Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing, Northbrook, Illinois.